An opinionated horse, Mr. Beau lets me know exactly what he wants to do and when. Best time for work (that dreaded word)? Early afternoon, around an hour before feeding time. He likes to wrap things up before the other horses are brought in from the fields; that way, he can get to his feed bucket first, thereby maintaining his premier status.
In hot weather, Beau's desires and mine especially conflict. Typical for this region, the horses are out in the pastures all night and brought in around 8:00 a.m. so they can spend the heat of the day in a nice shaded stall, replete with a box fan. As Rod frequently remarks, these horses live better than many people in Third World countries, to which I readily and guiltily assent. Despite these creature comforts, Beau conveys his extreme displeasure with early morning rides; after all, he's been outside all night, which is clearly exhausting and debilitating. How dare I expect him to do anything other than nap? Of course, I think riding at 7:00 a.m. is far saner than attempting a hack in mid-day heat, especially in July and August--and therein lies the conflict. I am sorry to confess that Beau usually wins through passive resistance, barely placing one hoof in front of the next and sighing perceptibly. It could be worse: I know a woman whose horse grunts audibly whenever she gains five pounds, a veritable talking scale.
We're more of one mind when it comes to equine disciplines. Beau hates flat work, especially dressage, which he regards as akin to water boarding. Taking a cue from George Bush, I explain that neither activity technically qualifies as torture, but Beau just doesn't believe me. Put the old boy in front of a jump, though, and you get a different horse. At Southwind, where I board him, his quicksilver transformation from slacker to workaholic has become an ongoing joke. Onlookers who have watched me urge Beau fruitlessly and laboriously through serpentines and 20 meter circles do a double take at the sight of the little grey thoroughbred, ears pricked, eyes alert, and body quivering with excitement, as he pops over rails. Even slightly elevated ground poles do it for him. I have to admit I share Beau's preference in this regard, but I keep explaining to him that dressage is good for both of us, sort of an equine version of taking your vitamins or doing push-ups. He just gives me that long sideways glance, a combination of skepticism and incredulity ("you expect me to do that?).
If the weather is reasonable, which to Beau means anything below 75 degrees, he happily hacks through the woods and fields around Southwind Farm. If it's muddy, humid, or, worst of all, buggy, then this activity goes from pleasant to onerous for both of us. I've endured dirty looks, pinned ears, and truly stupid behavior that I know is deliberate on his part. Don't even begin to explain to me about animals' inability to think ahead or make conscious choices. As anyone who has ever owned a horse knows, they are capable of truly diabolical behavior. Beau can be lazy, but he's also whip smart. If we're out on a day that is too humid, then Beau will suddenly "spook" at bushes or farm equipment he's passed previously with nary a glance. He will run relay races with horses in nearby fields, going from a stately walk to a bolting gallop in two seconds flat. He will, in short, make my life hell for forcing him to do other than what he wants.
So why do I keep the worthless beast? Well, he's actually a very good all-around horse for a middle-aged woman: I don't need a wild eyed four-year-old. Even when Beau bolts a few feet, he stops quickly. He's sending a message, not trying to murder me, which is more than you can say for some horses. Usually Beau takes pretty damn good care of me. My former trainer Carol once drily pointed out (as I hung off Beau's neck in a crumbled heap), "Many horses would have taken advantage of your poor position." Beau, however, feeling me fall forward as we cleared the jump, eased to a gentle walk and then stopped, giving me a chance to climb back into the saddle. He did turn his head to shoot me a disgusted look, but as Carol observed, he had the grace and generosity to save his rider.
In our way, we've come to love each other deeply. Beau nuzzles and licks me, even though he's not an especially affectionate horse by nature. When we've had a good ride, he leans his chin on my shoulder, giving me a chance to drape an arm around his neck or lay my cheek against his. He sighs contentedly, proud that he's done a good job--on his terms, of course. Then there are the kisses I taught him, our usual good-bye ritual unless I've asked for something untoward, like flat work or, heaven forfend, riding in hot, sticky weather. Last night, irritated at having to work in a lesson for the first time in weeks, Beau showed me his bottom, not his pretty nose when I came to say good-bye. And not for the first time did I think about having a horse with a dubious work ethic.